In the last couple chapters I have spoken in depth of the interior maturation of love as it blossoms in the realm of the subject, in the “I”—and yet profoundly in relation to the “you” of another person, who is cherished and affirmed in their uniqueness. In a way, all of this has been a deepening and enunciation of the secret richness of the experience of “original solitude” of which John Paul spoke, and which is a perennial trait of all human existence. Solitude is, as it were, a kind of inner horizon of every experience, the stage in which every experience is played out, even as this solitude is oriented towards communion with reality outside of the self, and, above all, for intimacy with another “I”—and indeed the whole universe of “I’s.” And this occurs within the embrace of the three divine Persons of the Trinity, in which “I” and “Thou” are indissolubly united in the “We” of intimacy that does not destroy the “I” but rather safeguards and fulfills it in the security of love and mutual belonging. In a word, here solitude does not imply any aloneness, but rather the fullness of subjective presence to the objective beauty of all that is real, and, most profoundly, the intersubjectivity by which solitudes pour into one another in mutual communication and reciprocal reverence, living in one another in a shared togetherness that affirms solitude as personal dignity even as it fulfills it in intimacy.

In this chapter, I would like to unfold the content of the previous reflections particularly as it is manifest, and matures, in the context of interpersonal relationship. The focus in the previous chapters has been, perhaps, on the inner stage of the human faculties and the experience of the “I,” but let me focus now on the exterior fabric of relationship that grows between persons on the basis of their shared communication. In a way, therefore, the following words will be a deeper enunciation of the meaning and experience of “original nakedness” as well as of the “original unity” that flowers from this.

I said that all love begins with encounter. And in order to be an encounter that is authentic and full, it must be a conscious encounter between person and person, and not merely between two individuals who project onto one another their own desires, fears, or aspirations, or who are engaged and preoccupied with the other merely or even primarily on the basis of their traits (either in the realm of sensuality or sensibility, or even any other realms there may be). Sadly, this occurrence of two persons “meeting” one another without actually encountering one another is very frequent, perhaps even, de facto, the rule. This is because a true encounter of persons, and a flowering of deep love between them, is directly conditioned by the maturity of both persons. Of course, a more mature person may love a less mature person, and the love of the mature person is not thereby made less authentic; but sooner or later this person will realize that the grounds for a full and true reciprocity, and thus of a profound intimacy, are not present. This is because no true intimacy can flower—at least in its deepest expression—without a mutual seeing of reverent love, and a reciprocal self-disclosure and self-gift, as well as the reception of each by the other.

I don’t intend to make an “ideal” of human maturity in a way that discourages those who, in their woundedness, are longing for intimacy (which is all of us!). For we are all imperfect, and we will be imperfect until the grace of God, in Christ crucified and risen, finally makes us totally whole, integrated and complete in body and spirit, at the end of time. Thus, by maturity I don’t mean some kind of superhuman perfection of all our capacities, nor an ability to do everything right without making mistakes, nor an ability to see what ordinary human beings are not capable of seeing. Rather, I mean above all the disposition of humility before God and before the other person which allows (or has allowed) the fog of projections, selfish clinging, dishonesty, and the tendency to use to die within the heart, so that the deeper voice of love and reverence may express itself. Virtue always consists, in this life, in walking, not in having definitively arrived, and so an awareness of our weakness and imperfection is not an invitation to discouragement or despair, but rather an invitation to hope and desire, placed not in ourselves but in God—in the sheltering and re-creating grace poured out in Christ and in the Holy Spirit—which also gradually develops, through experience, a confidence in God within us, in our own capacity to love in truth by the love of God truly loving in and through us.

On the other hand, I don’t want to imply that virtue is not a real state of the human person, a quality that develops in the personal subject and in the realm of our incarnate nature. It is certainly this, but not as a kind of “possession” that we can definitively call our own and act from in self-reliance. Rather, virtue is but the expression of the rediscovery and living of the relational nature of our being, and thus the return to the primal state of ceaseless dependence, tender listening, and humble responsiveness that marks us as creatures, and, even more, as persons created according to the image and likeness of God. Virtue is a capacity to love that grows in us in all the faculties of our being in response to reality, the making-whole of our being by grace—mediated through experience, activity, the sacraments, prayer, and all the other ways by which God touches us in our incarnate humanity. And as this process of healing and transformation occurs, what sin has wounded and fractured is gradually drawn together again into unity and harmony (integration), both within the inner sphere of the “I,” which for its part is ceaselessly related to the “Thou” of God, as well as in relation to other created “I’s” and to the whole universe. (I will speak more deeply and intimately of this in the chapter on prayer below: “The Spirit Cries with Voice Inexpressible.”)

So let us begin, wherever we may find ourselves, placing our trust not in our own innate perfection but in the sustaining, guiding, and protecting grace of the Trinity, who is ever near to us and invites us to walk with confidence and humility the path of love that he marks out before us. As we walk this path, we will be conformed more and more to the truth of the Trinity’s life, both as it is in itself in the inner depth of the communion of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and also as it is present and at work throughout the fabric of the created universe and in the intimate network of human relationships which manifest and participate in this life.

The most important disposition, even in the desire to approach human relationship and the growth of human intimacy, is to hold our solitude in readiness before God. In a word, it is to pray, to pray in the virginal receptivity that lays my whole being and all of my experiences before him, that opens all of my woundedness and pain and longing and hope—all the echoing cries of my own heart, which are stirred into consciousness and directed to the Father by the Spirit who prays within me—to the love and the gaze of God. In this way I can gradually come to know myself, my limitations and my desires, as well as the deep potentialities and capacities of my being, in their authentic truth as they exist in relation to the God who loves me. And from here I can begin to taste the Love that permeates me in my poverty and need, the Love that ceaselessly gives me life and constitutes me as a person—as a person in ceaseless relationship with the One who is ceaselessly in relationship with me. This solitude of my innate being as a person, thus, expands and grows in richness and depth, unsealing its true beauty and capacity which has always been latent inside from the very first moment of my creation by God’s gratuitous gift. I come to live, in all the richness of my own subjective being—in the richness of my own incomparable “I”—before the “Thou” of God who gives me life, and indeed to share in the inner solitude of the life of God which is eternally consummated in the “We” of the Trinity’s intimacy. Here is the foundation of my life, my being, and the wellspring and safeguard of a truly healthy and mature living of all my other relationships.

Of course, encountering other human persons can also direct me back to this innate solitude, to the experience of prayer before God who alone can love me fully and totally to the depth of my being. But it can do so only insofar as I hear in it the echo of the voice of God, the echo of innate solitude, both in the heart of the other person who loves me and whom I love (or desire to love) as well as in my own heart. And when this occurs, when two solitudes which are open before God and belong to God encounter one another in reverence and tenderness, true intimacy can freely blossom in the depth and transparency that God desires, in the purity that reflects the innate richness of the Trinity’s life, which is a perfect wedding of solitude and communion, of person and intimacy, in the intimacy of the Father and the Son in the Holy Spirit.

This is the path marked out by the promise of human love. It is a path into ever great transparency of person and person in the nakedness of mutual self-giving, such that the innate solitude of each is seen and reverenced by the other, and thus they come together in the communion that is born precisely of mutual beholding and shared affirmation. Here we can also see the nature of true intimacy as opposed to false intimacy. True intimacy is measured by the depth to which each person sees the other in truth, without lies or deceptions or hidden secrets, and, in response to this seeing, cares for the other person in a tenderness that esteems them for their own sake and desires their authentic good in the sight of God. Everything else but expresses, mediates, and communicates this inner essence of mutual seeing and tender affirmation.

And thus we discern the inner trajectory of love’s deepening and maturation. It is born from encounter and grows through communication and comes to rest in communion. Again we see the three original experiences at work: encounter as the touching of two solitudes, communication as the nakedness of their sharing and self-disclosure, and communion as the intimacy of their reciprocal affirmation and shared belonging. Encounter is a promise, an invitation, a word of calling forth. It is a kind of echo from heart to heart that calls them along a path of discovery of the true contours of the heart of the other person, a discovery which makes possible a truly attuned presence, an authentically reciprocal dialogue, and an honest affirmation founded entirely in the realistic truth of both persons before God.

This reality is profoundly simple and yet incredibly rich. And because it is so, it is actually quite difficult to write about—on the one hand, because very little needs to be said, and yet, on the other hand, because one could never say enough. This is because the reality of intimacy between persons need not be enunciated in words, and actually cannot be adequately expressed without being made less than it is. For it lives on “I” and “you” and “we,” and cannot be made “he” and “she” and “them” without being diminished beyond recognition. But something must be said, even though only in general terms, as an invitation to the beauty of reciprocal relationship, for which the heart of each one of us yearns.

I could perhaps proceed by noting how relationship often matures by passing from the realm of strong emotion to the realm of deep affectivity: in other words, even if at first the more superficial spheres of being play a larger role (because they are more immediately visible and tangible), these become more and more transparent to the deeper voice of the inner person, which awakens and matures a much more profound response of the heart in affectivity, mind, and will. The same is true in the trajectory from the experience of the other fulfilling a particular need or desire within me, to the simple gratitude that the other exists in their right and for their own sake, and that the other is also, gratuitously, a gift of God to me, in which my desire for communion with them is wholly attuned, both to the truth of my heart and the heart of the other person, as well as to the intentions of God for us. This leads to the chaste desire of my heart simply for the other person to be happy, and, to the degree that God has entrusted them to me, the desire and commitment to care for them as a custodian of their authentic good and integrity in the sight of God. In all of this, we see how the process of integration spoken of in previous chapters plays out also in the living space of communication between two persons. Thus, we can affirm that the depth and authenticity of human relationship is conditioned on the maturity of the two persons, while also, inversely, helping them to mature in the very process of growing relationship.

But relationship authentically matures only when it is founded in true encounter and true communication, and not in their counterfeits (which are manifold). And thus the heart needs food, the food of true presence of person to person, in order to grow. Profound relationship cannot grow for long on the superficial realm of mutual enjoyment, nor on the basis of two persons using one another (in whatever way), nor on the fun of doing things together, nor by the kind of play of associations by which two persons create their own “language” by which they enjoy one another’s presence and the comfort that it brings. Nor, indeed, can a relationship mature merely on the basis of the deep need and desire of each person for the experience of intimacy. Rather, relationship can only grow on the basis of a true seeing and affirmation of each person for the other, to which everything else in the relationship is subjected, and to which it must answer for its authenticity.

And because of this, true relationship, as it matures, becomes more and more sober even as it echoes more profoundly and deeply in heartfelt affectivity (and thus in deeper feeling); this is because it sinks its roots more and more deeply into the simple truth. It engages the mind and the will and the affectivity profoundly, and in doing so harnesses the lower faculties and experiences with a deepening simplicity and transparency (such that they are but a substratum of communication at the service of the union of heart and heart, and not a fog that gets in the way of the sober and yet radiant vision of love). Yes, love sinks its roots deeply into the naked truth of the other person in all of their beauty and imperfection, and also into the truth in oneself. It sinks its roots in a shared gaze upon the beauty and splendor of reality, in all of its expansiveness, such that the union of two persons is not closed in on itself, but profoundly open—and ever more open according to the depths of the inner impetus of love towards all that is beautiful, good, and true—both to receive and welcome others into this sacred space of love shared between two persons, and also to let fruit flow forth from this union for many. Finally, above all and before all, authentic and mature love sinks its roots into the very heart of God, who is Love, from whom it has come and to whom it returns, and who alone can enable human love to be authentic to its very core and in its every expression.